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Keir Starmer must seize the chance to be radical on housing

Labour leader Keir Starmer and deputy Angela Rayner (Alamy)

5 min read

By going big and bold on housing in his first term in Downing Street, Keir Starmer would boost his chances of re-election and help turn the tide against Nimbyism.

As younger voters continue to abandon the Conservatives, Keir Starmer wants Labour to be the party of the YIMBYs. Going into government with strict self-imposed fiscal rules, the consensus forming among Labour officials is that planning is the silver bullet for growth and a vehicle to show the change possible under Labour. 

The demand is there.

In a recent J.L. Partners poll for the Centre for Social Justice, the lack of affordable or good quality housing was ranked as the second most important reason holding people back. It was also ranked as the second most important cause of poverty in the local area. When more than half of the population, including three in four of those who are most deprived, say they worry about housing (due to either cost, security, quality, or all three), the signs could not be clearer for both major parties that there is no route to navigate the cost of living spike without also tackling the housing crisis. 

The challenge for Labour and any party attempting to combat spiralling housing costs is one of public opinion – of the perceived reaction from the electorate and local communities. 

My town of Leighton Buzzard serves as a warning to politicians trying to alleviate the housing crisis.

Over the last 20 years, the population has increased by a third and with more housing erected in recent years that number will continue to grow. Across the town there are now worries about healthcare access, school places, traffic on the roads and a general feeling that the town has become overcrowded as infrastructure has failed to catch up to increased demand. Meanwhile, housing remains as unaffordable for younger people as ever, with the 30-minute direct train to Euston bringing enough prospective buyers to the area for available housing to be snapped up. 

A little before the 2023 local elections, 6,000 more homes were being built in Leighton Buzzard. What happened next? The Conservatives, who governed both locally and nationally were wiped out from the town. The victors? The Liberal Democrats, who opposed the project, focusing on infrastructure demands and the ills of new housing. 

But those who draw the conclusion that building is a vote loser are wrong. The political solution is not to stop new housing but instead to make sure local communities can benefit from future development and it is this lesson that Keir Starmer has to take note of.

If local communities do not buy into Labour’s bold actions on housing, then not only could Starmer lose support, but the housing problem will once again be kicked into the long grass. Labour must ensure local communities benefit from new housing in the short term to allow the country to benefit in the long term. To achieve this Labour must manage worries around housing affordability alongside concerns around public services. 

Firstly, it must ensure the impact on affordability is seen before they face re-election and, secondly, ensure local communities see improvements to their lives, bank accounts and surrounding areas.

Starmer needs to be able to highlight the positive impact his radical housing plans have had on housing affordability by the end of his first term. 

To achieve this, Labour needs to go beyond its pledge of 1.5 million homes and aim for higher numbers which can produce meaningful change to affordability. Britain is short of at least 4 million homes. To have an impact on affordability that shortage needs to be drastically reduced before Starmer is up for re-election. A half-hearted effort will hurt both Labour’s re-election chances and the country.

If Starmer can do this, it will show that his plan is working. It will also further boost support for housing which could quell nimby dissent in future elections. Almost three in four say they support more housing being built in the local area if it made housing more affordable. This wins over 40 per cent of those who initially said they oppose housebuilding in the local area. If Starmer chooses to go big on housing from the start of his premiership, he will have enough time to prove that new housing is affordable, and Labour will therefore reap the rewards before the end of the Parliament. 

Labour and Starmer can ensure communities become part of the process and benefit from the new housing.

The Adam Smith Institute's Homes for All scheme is an innovative solution involving residents in the process who may not normally participate, drowning out louder nimby-er voices. By compulsory purchasing and distributing shares of land before housing developments are approved, locals are given a stake in new developments allowing local people, communities and councils to benefit financially from new housing. 

Half of those surveyed in a recent J.L. Partners poll say they would support such a scheme, including one in five who previously said they were opposed to local housebuilding. The Homes for All scheme can gain further support for local housing development by directly linking new housing to an easing of the cost of living crisis, gifting people shares which become an investment for their own future, as well as new housing which is an investment in the nation’s future. Madder things have happened than a Labour government taking on an Adam Smith Institute suggestion: the party would do well to do so.

Housing could be the perfect start for Starmer’s tenure.

It will keep on side those key voters who voted against the Conservatives and give them a reason to vote for Starmer, both younger aspirational professionals who have dreams of home ownership and starting a family as well as those who are just about managing, held back by the prohibitive cost of housing.

My — and the public’s — message to Keir Starmer? If you want to keep winning, get building.

Julian Gallie is Research Associate at JL Partners Polls.

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